The simple reason why people really change churches, switch faiths, or leave religion altogether

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Forty percent of Americans change faiths during their lives. Some changes are relatively minor–moving from a conservative Baptist church to a more liberal Methodist church. Others are more substantial, such as converting from Christianity to Judaism or dropping religion altogether.

Most of like to think of such religious changes as an individual choice. Even if we continue in the faith in which we were raised, we see this as a conscious decision.  And the reason we made this choice is, of course, reasonable and thought-out.

Sociologists find such claims to be dubious. Religion may be a choice, but this choice is shaped by forces outside of our control. Without realizing it, our religious choices are constrained by our families, our ethnicities, our neighborhoods, and our occupations.

Darren Sherkat’s Changing Faith deals in-depth with the impact of demographics on our religious choices. He offers a simple but powerful explanation for why Americans change their religious choices. I’ll call it “Sherkat’s First Law of Religious Motion”

A person’s faith will remain at rest unless acted upon by outside forces.

What are these outside forces?  Put simply: changes in demographics.

  • Changes in education. People who obtain more education than those in their childhood faith are 18% more likely to leave religion.
  • Changes in marital status. People are more likely to switch their religious choices when they marry, when they divorce, or when a spouse dies.
  • Changes in geography. Change your location, change your religion. Even those who move within the same region of the country are more likely to make some type of religious change.
  • Changes in assimilation (or the continuity of recent immigrant communities). First and second generation immigrants are more likely to stick with their religion than are other Americans whose families immigrated earlier in history.

Sherkat is emphatic about the effect of immigration on religious identification.

Immigrant religion is not merely a sideline. “Real America” is not western European sectarian Protestantism. Real America is defined, produced, and reproduced by waves of diverse immigrant groups assimilating into or accommodating with a dominant Anglo-dominated culture. (88)

Bottom line: Immigration and other changes shape Americans’ religious choices. We still choose our religion. We still choose whether or not be religious. We choose which local congregation to join. But this choice is constrained by those around us, our families, neighborhoods, and communities. Demography, it seems, may be destiny.

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  • Karla

    The main reason people leave their faith is because they were never really a
    Christian. People ask why Christians still get drunk,smoke dope,cigars,gamble,
    sell sex,see strippers,have premarital sex/sleep around,gossip,covet,be mean,
    have sharp tongues,are jealous? It’s because they’re not really Christians!
    People today seem to forget Jesus said you are one of Mine only if you follow
    Me and many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! We must Repent!

  • Karla, do you see no interesting points in Tobin’s demography argument?

  • Karla

    Cathy-The point I was trying to make was many people today have faith that
    is surface only. We have many in church that want to go to heaven but don’t
    want to Repent. Bible says to Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved.
    Bible says to Repent or perish! We all must Repent!

  • Roger

    Certainly changes in demographics have a lot to do with it. But I’m less certain it’s as simple as that. The political/economic/cultural ground is shifting violently under our feet, which has many spinning off in all directions. Our faith traditions weren’t designed to adapt to change so rapidly, and so become antiquated and less relevant very quickly. Fundamentally, we are meaning-seeking creatures, as Karen Armstrong observed, “…and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives.”
    The religious communities that survive this period of social upheaval will be the ones that offer purpose and meaning, minus the irrelevant historical baggage.
    Anyway, my 2 cents. I enjoy this blog.

  • John McGrath

    My Irish immigrant uncle two or three times lined up all the kids and cousins and asked, “Why are yo a Catholic?” The first time mostly mostly school and catechism answers were given. The uncle’s response, “No, forget all that, you’re Catholic because your parents are Catholics. And your Jewish friends are Jewish because their parents are Jewish. And your Protestant friends are Protestant because their parents are Protestant. remember that, your religion is your parents’ religion. So don’t go thinking any one religion is better than another, or that God chose you to be in your religion.”

    By the third time we had absorbed what he had to say.

    P.S. None of us had any Protestant friends, but all of us had Jewish friends. But later we had black Protestant friends. When asked about Orthodox Christians, we were told, “Same as Catholics, just no infallible pope. Not that we believe in an infallible pope. And don’t you either.”

  • Bobbie Jo Justice

    The reason I left religion?

    Well, first I am a grown adult and I don’t believe in fairy tales anymore. Second, I am way past fed up with people who “claim to be christian” promoting hatred against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

  • Karla

    Bobbie-It’s not a fairy tale. Read Romans 1:18-25. Look at creation and you
    say that is all just by chance? Bible prophecy that all came true wtih 100%
    accuracy is why you can trust the Bible. All sin is wrong and people that only
    talk about abortion and/or homosexuals need to look at themselves because
    all sin is bad . 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists many sins with homosexuality. You
    should read the book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. God is real!

  • Randy

    Guess you are right….sinners are not Christians and have no need for God’s Grace…The only real Christians are the ones that are strongly pro-birth(after that you are on your own)and anti-ga…are you serious?

  • Karla

    Randy-Read Luke 13. We must bear good fruit. Of course nobody is
    perfect but we must Repent! Two guys were next to Jesus on the Cross
    and only one guy went to heaven! Why is that? Only one guy Repented
    and had a change of heart about his sin. We must Repent! Bible says
    drunkards go to hell and yet I meet person after person that still gets
    drunk and it’s because most people only talk about gay marriage and
    or abortion. 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 list many sins with homosexuality so
    all sin is bad. The wine Jesus made was diluted and the Bible also says
    don’t get drunk on strong wine/Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk with
    wine for it is debauchery so we are all sinners yes but we must Repent!

  • Dallas

    Maybe it’s just that I stopped swallowing the weapons-grade stupidity that the church shoved down my throat for so long. After spending over 25 years of my life in church, I decided to quit altogether some 13 years ago. And I don’t miss it one bit.

  • Jon

    Why did I switch churches? It had nothing whatever to do with demographics, geography, marital status, sexual orientation, or education. Instead it had everything to do with music, pure and simple. I find the childishly simplistic and theologically barren happy-clappy pop “contemporary” music being inflicted upon so many churches these days utterly underwhelming. So I extensively church-shopped and found one which has a fine pipe organ, a great professional organist/choirmaster, and an excellent choir respectfully presenting enduring examples of fine traditional sacred music. I’m inspied again and will definitely be sticking around …

  • Amy

    I would say some leave because of people like Karla, who can’t engage in real dialogue, but just hit people over the head with verses and dogma.

  • John McGrath

    True. Mean spirited and aggressively ignorant people seem to be the base of church congregations. They drive everyone else away. Their rejection of proven science is truly frightening.

  • Karla

    Amy-What are you talking about? All I do is just preach the Truth and
    any good preacher/church sticks to what the Bible says! You like many
    people just use that as an excuse to sin/rebel because you don’t want
    to live right/don’t want to Repent/follow the Bible/Jesus. If you have a
    problem with what the Bible says that is your problem! Today so many
    people want to go to heaven but don’t want to Repent. We must Repent!

  • This article could be more variegated to let in specificity without necessarily featuring the choices of anyone in particular. The comment I like the best is the comment by Roger. I rather like John McGrath’s first comment about his uncle, though its fiery pop regarding the sitting Pope is not part of my religious feeling. I have often liked reading about and knowing what ethics positions are stated in the newspaper as offered by the Pope. The present Pope gives me hope and light. I hope it continues. Meanwhile, as a UCC-confirmed woman writer, I like Judaism most to read of and in, and I like any opportunity to be in a service or to pray in neutrality with others. I loved and would love to feel again the YWCA and YMCA spirituality of summer camps in later childhood in northern Minnesota.

  • Yes.

  • Rick

    Amy reminds me of the church I left. It is a religion with a long list of don’t after complying with whatever steps to salvation. The same New Testament that Amy references teaches pacifism yet most churches and their members reject that. They take up arms, they swear allegiance to their government, they bow to the idol of the national flag to which they pledge their allegiance. Then like the Pharisee’s Jesus condemned they ignore the weightier matters of love, justice, and mercy. They rationalize away the golden rule of doing unto others what they would have done to them because we all know railing about abortion, and homosexuality is what Jesus spent so much time discussing.

    Studies in the sociology of religion have long found not among those in Christian traditions in this country changes in their faith traditions correlates with changes in their socioeconomic status or how alienated the individual is from their family or the larger society.

    by the way Amy that passage you reference in Corinthians that condemns homosexuality… guess what? those passages have been translated multiple times over the last two thousand years conflicting ways and the fact that your translation says homosexuality nothing but the translators biases. God may be an inerrant but translators certainly are not.

  • Becki

    I offer this to anyone who has appointed him or herself as the expert on God’s mind and salvation:

    Matthew 23:23 (CEV)
    23 You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These are the important things you should have done, though you should not have left the others undone either. 24 You blind leaders! You strain out a small fly but swallow a camel.

  • Sorry, but it is not enough just to repeat, “repent, repent.” And anyone who has read the Bible in its entirety, not merely memorizing verses out of context to bolster their beliefs , and who possesses critical thinking skills, does not believe that the Bible is the actual word of God. It is man’s attempt to understand God.

  • Mike

    I like your description of the “childishly simplistic and theologically barren happy-clappy pop ‘contemporary'” “worship” music that is played in so many churches today. It’s just feel-good pablum for the name-it/claim-it set, and churche$ that want to “pack ’em in” by any means. There is nothing sacred or profound about it. Our church just got a new organ and although it’s digital and no longer uses the pipes, it sounds better than ever and fills the sanctuary with wonderful vibes.

  • Karla

    John Paris-What are you talking about? The Bible is the Word of God!
    Bible says Repent or perish and I’m not taking anything out of context!
    If you don’t Repent/know Christ you will not inherit the kingdom of heaven!
    Jesus said many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven so you
    had better/need to read the whole Bible not just part. You can’t just take
    out parts of the Bible you don’t like. It’s very convenient for people that
    don’t want to Repent to try to undermine the Bible/Truth. Luke 13 says we
    must bear good fruit and that fruit is fruit of Repentance. If you say you
    love Jesus and then you don’t follow the Bible//religion no Truth is in you!
    Two guys were next to Jesus on the Cross. Only one guy went to heaven!
    Why is that? Only one guy Repented/had a change of heart about his sin.
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved. We must Repent!

  • John McGrath

    Your remark and the remark you are commenting on prove that church is primarily entertainment, happy-clappy or profoundly organic. For entertainment most people have found better offerings out side of church.

    Boredom is the main reason people change, or leave church altogether.

  • John McGrath

    Do you kill adulterers? The Bible commands it.

  • Karla

    John-Old Testament. Do your research. For you to say nothing turned
    into everything is not possible! Read Romans 1:18-25. God is real!

  • jon

    ” … the Bible is [not] the actual word of God. It is man’s attempt to understand God.” Thank you, John. You’ve absolutely correctly nailed it.

  • Karla

    jon-Wrong! The Bible is the inspired Word of God!

  • jon

    Perhaps for some people, John, “church is primarily entertainment”, but most certainly not for me. The deeply inspirational theology of fine traditional sacred music which has stood the test of time has complimented and enhanced meaningful worship for centuries, and for me and countless others, continues to play an integral part in reinforcing and sustaining our faith.

    I suspect your observation may well be true for those dying churches desperate to attract “a younger demographic” via laboring under the delusion that the same music they hear everywhere else will somehow magically attract and hold them (despite the fact that the guys actually playing those guitars and drums are often gray-haired rockers old enough to be their fathers). Many younger visitors merely sample such superficiality and then move on.

    Fact is, what a growing contingent of younger Christians actually yearn for is the security of a well-grounded faith tradition which their hearts tell them survives and thrives for the very logical reasons of quality, depth, theology, and uplifting inspiration.

  • jon

    My over-riding wish in discussions such as these is always that participants
    might dispense with the knee-jerk impulse to loudly and repeatedly quote handy Bible verses selectively chosen to support their personal biases, and instead rationally, respectfully, and logically discuss the specific issues at hand. We all have access to dozens of different Bible translations right here on line, so such quotes are nothing but wasted bandwidth, and none of us can possibly be persuaded by being beaten over the head with it.

    Alas, the art of social discourse often seems woefully absent as some folks resort to the easy out of quotation rather than actually engaging the God-given brain.

  • Karla

    jon-Wrong again! How can people Repent if their sin is never confronted?
    You really need to read your Bible cause for you to say that the Bible is
    not the Word of God just shows how much the Bible needs to be preached.
    I meet person after person that doesn’t want to Repent/follow Jesus…they
    only want to go to heaven but sadly they will never see heaven and it’s
    because people aren’t hearing the Truth! Jesus said you are one of Mine
    only if you follow Me/many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven!
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We must Repent!

  • Dan

    That’s not for you to judge.

  • Heather

    In the past year, I shifted from a rather fundamental, non-denominational spirit-filled Christian to a more progressive-type Christian, or what John Shore calls Unfundamentalist Christian. The main difference for me is I no longer believe that the English version of the Bible that I read that has been translated multiple times over centuries and centuries is the infallible and inerrant word of God.

    The reason for this change is not one listed in this article. The main reason I changed is because something happened to me that made me realize one of the core Christian beliefs that I learned was wrong. I was always taught that if I believed I was healed, I would eventually be physically healed of my ailments; but after 13 years of praying, believing, having hands laid upon me, having multiple people pray for me, confessing scripture aloud, and doing everything from a physical standpoint like taking care of my body, my health suddenly got worse. It still doesn’t make sense to me that if God wants me to fulfill a certain purpose, why He wouldn’t heal me. I then realized I know other people who have struggled with disabling health conditions for many years and who did everything they were supposed to do also are not being healed. This made me question my interpretation of healing scriptures.

    The second reason I changed is because I was actually embarrassed by the way two pastors from two churces I used to attend handled LGBT inclusion. One of them preached for an hour about loving LGBT people because that’s what Jesus would do, but then he concluded by saying that you cannot be practicing gay person and a Christian at the same time. Assuming that a consensual adult monogamous homosexual relationship really is a sin, that’s like saying nobody can be a Christian because we are ALL sinners. By that pastor’s logic, if you have the urge to overeat, and you act on it by binging (gluttony), you can’t be a Christian. If you have the urge to cheat on your spouse, and you do it, you’re not a Christian! There are way more people who are gluttons and adulterers, but nobody ever says anything about those sins. No, churches just pick on the 2% of the population that are homosexual.

    Anyway, sorry this is so long. The reason I became a Christian in the first place may have been demographic, but my change inside of Christianity has been very well thought out.

  • Karla

    Heather-Well said about homosexuality getting singled out. So many people
    today only want to talk about gay marriage or abortion so they don’t have
    to face their own sin. All sin is bad and 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists drunkards,
    slanderers/gossips,liars,coveters/the greedy,idolaters,swindlers,thieves and
    the sexually immoral right along with homosexuality. We all must Repent!

  • Ed

    Many of the books of the New Testament were written to deify Jesus. How else do you make someone bigger than life but by having him perform miracles, rise from the dead, etc? Just as the Rev. Samuel Weems created the George Washington myths to make him larger than life and an American hero, the writers of the Gospels did the same for Jesus. The importance of the New Testament is in Jesus’ teachings not the mythical miracles surrounding him. Frankly if everyone lived by The Golden Rule (and it isn’t in the Bible) the world would be a better place and millions would not have been slaughtered and enslaved in the name of the Christian religion by so-called Christians.

  • chris

    It’s been written by man, and even if we don’t know for sure we know that it’s been edited and translated hundreds, if not thousands of times. So it is very foolish to accept it as the true word of a god when clearly the people in control of what stayed in, and what it said exactly were the editors.

  • chris

    if your a progressive christian, why believe in the bible at all? if you know it’s been edited and translated wrong so many times why even allow it to be a compass in your life? It clearly isn’t the answer, if you believe that stoning gays and adulterers are the moral thing to do. and you believe killing children is ok ( It’s one thing to have a community and to believe in a god, but following a book that is so clearly outdated and inaccurate… it’s foolish. And you know something that would’ve helped with your ailments? science, medicine, other professional people. Why thank god when your doctor, who worked damn hard to become a doctor saved your life… it just doesn’t make sense to me…

  • Roy

    We are all sinners. If you think you aren’t you are only fooling yourself.

    In His Grace,

  • Roy


  • Re: “The main reason people leave their faith is because they were never really a Christian.”

    There’s no such thing as “a ‘real’ Christian” as opposed to a “fake” one. A Christian is anyone who thinks s/he’s following the teachings of Jesus Christ. It really is just as simple as that. It doesn’t matter if some other Christian doesn’t “look” Christian to you, or “talk” Christian, or “act” Christian, as you see it. It doesn’t matter if what another Christian thinks about Jesus Christ or what he taught, differs from what you think about him or what he taught. None of that makes the slightest bit of difference … no matter how fervently you might disagree.

    To believe there is such a thing as “a ‘real’ Christian” is fallacious ( Most of the time when people use the phrase “‘real’ Christian,” s/he means another Christian who agrees with him/her and doesn’t make him/her look bad.

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  • Dan

    Ed: Check Luke 6:31, Many people refer to this as “The Golden Rule” passage. God’s Word is true, man’s understanding is flawed.

  • Dan

    Excellent comment Chris! The Bible is either true or false, dependable or without merit. Choose today, but be consistent.

  • Horse puckey. Like everything else created by humans (yes, even when inspired by God), parts of the Bible remain true and correct for contemporary Christians, while other passages are either simply false or quaintly outdated (though offering a unique historical glimpse into the motivations of the writers in that time and place). One of God’s greatest gifts is our brain’s ability for reasonable and rational discernment, a divine talent we should each judiciously employ in exercising the inspiration of our Christian faith.

  • Re: “The Bible is either true or false, dependable or without merit.”

    This is an irrational and unjustifiable oversimplification. “The Bible” isn’t a unitary “black box” which must be either wholly true or wholly false. It’s a collection of many documents, which are in turn collections of ideas, stories, and sayings. Most of those documents were written over a period of time, with older (now lost) sources, which were assembled and edited in particular ways.

    What this means is that each idea, story, or saying within the Bible must be evaluated as true or false (or somewhere in-between) on its own. And those evaluations must take into account the editing and redaction that took place leaving them in the forms we have.

    Some of the Bible’s individual stories are true. Others are false. Still others are difficult to determine. The sayings are either applicable to one’s life or they’re not. There’s a nearly infinite combination of decisions one can make about all of them. The veracity or value of some of the Bible’s components isn’t clear, and may never become clear.

    The evaluation process — which involves examining thousands of individual components in the Bible — is neither simple nor easy. It leaves no room for hypersimplistic demands for a single decision to be applied to it all as a single package.

    Re: “Choose today, but be consistent.”

    There is, sadly, nothing “consistent” about all the thousands of components which make up the Christian Bible. Since it’s a collection of documents which are themselves collections of notions, it’s foolish even to think there might even be any “consistency” among them all.

  • Exactly, PsiCop. Perfect said.

  • Eva

    Karla, I know what you are talking about…
    God wants us to come to him with a humble heart, and he will draw us by his Holy Spirit. Those that are drawn to Jesus by his Holy Spirit, should be very happy. Remember Karla! Gods word is more powerful and sharper than a two edged sword.
    Those that deny his word are denying him. Jesus said that He is The Word.